(Image / comic by xkcd: https://xkcd.com/1053/)
This was originally the submission for a talk which I’ve now delivered in a few places. There’s a recording of the talk here.
“I know nothing.”
“I know less than nothing.”
“I am an impostor.”
“The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.”
These are sentences that will be familiar to the vast majority of IT professionals. But how about these?
“They know nothing about X.”
“They have no relevant experience.”
“Wow, I just discovered my colleague doesn’t understand Y. I’m shocked.”
“Can you believe, I just interviewed this dev, and they didn’t even know what a Z was?”
Over my 18-year software career, those last two have been said to me countless times. They are said derisively, scornfully, impatiently. And every time those words are said, we lose both existing and potential members of our profession. We lose them because they feel stupid; because they believe they can’t keep up; because they have given up on ever really knowing what they’re doing; because they’re terrified that people are saying the same things about them.
We work in an industry where knowledge is highly valued, and where every time we look for a new job we have to prove how much we know. We find ways of posturing to one another, of proving how well-informed we are. Sometimes we join in when others’ knowledge is criticised – relieved that we are not the target ourselves.
And yet, we know that everybody has gaps. There are a million different paths through software development, touching a million different combinations of technologies and skills. On a day-to-day level we have to specialise on one task at a time. The skills we don’t need right now are necessarily forgotten, or delegated to someone else. And that’s fine.
If somebody already feels like they don’t “fit in”, then this kind of pressure and insecurity can be the final shove that persuades them to leave the profession or not try and join in the first place. Women and non-binary people, people of colour, older people, LGBT people and many other under-represented groups are strongly impacted by intellectual elitism. But of course, ALL software professionals are impacted.
Let’s stop putting pressure on individuals to know everything, and focus instead on how teams can work together to build and provide the unique combination of skills required to deliver their current project – in the certain knowledge that whatever that combination was today, it will be different tomorrow.
Instead of knowledge, let’s focus on aptitude. Instead of judging people about what they don’t know, let’s help them to feel excited about all the new things they’re going to discover.
Instead of saying “For God’s sake, do you really not know about X?” let’s say “Fantastic, you don’t know about X! Lucky you. That means you get to learn it. What can I do to help?”
(I’m hoping to do talks on this topic at events in 2018 – let me know if you have an event you’d like me to talk at).